As a professional race car driver, Mario Andretti appreciates the power of the competitive spirit. He believes it is what allows people to push the limits of what’s possible in engineering. Take, for example, the vehicles he’s driven for the 24-hour endurance races at Le Mans.
“You get out there in your pleasure car and go flat out, you’ll probably blow up in about 40 miles,” says Andretti. “That’s the rigor that goes through a racing car. You have to manufacture a car than can last through that kind of punishment.”
Racing towards progress
Andretti explains that it’s this kind of challenge that inspires engineers by putting them in a unique environment to see what their minds are capable of. As a result, many of the developments in today’s autos got their start in racing.
“Almost every aspect of the car,” says Andretti, “the brakes, the transaxles, the suspension geometry, all these things that benefit today’s road car — a lot of them were actually developed in our sport.”
“The turbo-charged engine,” he notes as an example “was developed through motor racing and found its way into production cars … [Manufacturers] all have some development that they want to see through, and there’s no better test than the world of auto racing.”
A born gear-head, the 76-year-old racer has been blown away by the results when engineers are challenged to push the limits. “You talk about tire companies that I’ve worked with since the mid-60s — the progress that’s been made there is just unbelievable, going from cross-ply to radial concepts [which increase fuel efficiency and offer better contact with the road],” Andretti says. “In those days you would not know how to dream of what we’re in possession of today.”
Andretti has seen firsthand the wide variety of specialized skills that go into auto manufacturing, as well as the opportunities the industry offers for engineers to work in a multitude of diverse specialties.
“There are so many specialized segments of an automobile,” Andretti says. “Aerodynamics, suspension, design, engine, transmission … each area is extremely specialized to one sector of engineering. It opens up infinite doors for young prospects looking to join the industry.” This extends to those who are looking to get creative with new modifications to soup up the cars that are already on the open market.
Building the future
With all the game-changing developments he’s seen over his five-decade career, Andretti knows the future will be here sooner than we think.
“I think the way things are progressing, [all-hybrid cars and self-driving cars] might not even take as long as 2030,” he says, citing the way competition jumpstarts progress as evidence. “You have more and more manufacturers joining [all-electric] races because they know that’s going to stimulate the engineering mind.”
He also recently did an exhibition race with former racer Sam Schmidt in a semi-autonomous car designed for quadriplegic drivers like Schmidt.
“I was steering by moving my head and accelerating by blowing on a tube,” Andretti explains. “The engineers have done a great job giving people like Sam that kind of freedom. He’s driven at Indianapolis with that at 150 mph, which is unthinkable.”
Though he knows there’s still work to be done in energy efficiency and in building the infrastructure for new technology, Andretti is confident that engineers can face these challenges with creativity and pride.
“The things we can do are miraculous and stimulating,” he says, adding, “I think there’s a tremendous future ahead.”